A friend of mine recommended a book to me recently called By Means of the Urim and Thummim. It’s written by two seemingly active LDS authors who make a compelling argument that Joseph Smith actually used the Urim and Thummim, attached to a breastplate, to translate the Book of Mormon, rather than a stone or stones he peered into in his hat, which is the narrative the Church now has embraced.
It’s interesting that the argument has to be made, since Joseph himself never mentioned using a hat or any other seer stone in the translation process.
With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God (Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842).
“For over a century and a half”, the authors write, “most believers accepted Smith’s translation narrative.”
Without spoiling the book for those who wish to read it, the Church eventually embracing the once anti-Mormon stone in the hat translation theory had a lot to do with its insecurities over the Spaulding letter accusations — only made worse later by Mark Hoffman’s forgeries and accompanying fabricated, fantastical stories about Joseph — picked up on and embellished by LDS historian D. Michael Quinn — all of which led to an updated Church narrative that appeases those who believe Joseph to have been more of a treasure seeking, magic loving, shaman/mystical type — maybe crazy, maybe genius, maybe inspired by dark powers — young ignorant farm boy. The authors suggest that by embracing this stone in hat theory, Joseph and his mission are delegitimized. I tend to agree.
Joseph Smith never (not even once) suggested that he translated the Book of Mormon by looking into a hat. In fact, only two somewhat contemporary witnesses can be found ever saying anything at all about a hat: David Whitmer, many, many years later while still very much anti-Joseph and anti-LDS and an elderly Emma who was “said” to have seen Joseph translate by said means. The problem with her testimony is that it was published well after she died and was not in her own writing (second hand / hearsay) and her son, Joseph III, who took the interview, backtracked from the stone in hat theory himself in later years. In other words, even he didn’t promote the stone in hat narrative, but instead he promoted the Urim and Thummim direct translation account.
Many revelations were given through the Urim and Thummim and Joseph apparently knew how to use it. No revelation is said to have been received by means of a Stone in the Hat in the D&C. Oliver was chastised by the Lord because he supposed that all he had to do was ask to be able to translate using the instruments—
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But behold, I say unto you that you must study it out in your mind, then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong. Therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
Apparently (as the authors point out), the work of translation took much more than just asking and peeping into a stone in a hat. It actually took real, intellectual effort and study, all while looking at the characters through the Urim and Thummim on the gold pages of the record which somehow conveyed a translation to the one attempting to do the work.
They also note how strange it would be that the Lord would go through so much effort to preserve the records for thousands of years, costing untold lives, and then risking the lives of Joseph and his family and others by their mere existence, if Joseph didn’t actually need them in order to translate. Why have them under a cloth? Or in the room? Or why even bring them out of the ground? Why carry them across 100s, maybe 1000s of miles for more than 1000 years? Why edit them (Mormon)? Why hide them (Moroni)? If they were never actually needed in the translation process?
I personally have not toiled much over this question in part because for most of my life, we were never told it was true that Joseph used a hat while translating. It wasn’t until many years later as an adult that the hat story became something I ever heard given any credibility by the LDS Church. Anti-Mormons made those accusations, but not the Church itself. I actually find the authors to be very persuasive and I appreciate their efforts. I prefer their version of the story and especially so because it is consistent with Joseph’s own testimony.
The Church undermines itself when it does not know its own history or defends it wrongly as it has done with so many important topics.
Millions of LDS Church members celebrated Russell Nelson who turned 99 recently. He is called by his people: prophet, seer, and revelator. President Nelson, takes the view that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with a seer stone(s) in his hat while the plates were usually covered next to him. It seems as is shown in this video that he espouses the magical translation D. Michael Quinn narrative.
After reading the above mentioned book, I think many would be perplexed that President Nelson does not believe Joseph’s own account. Especially if they believe that he too is a “seer” as was Joseph.
The term “seer” is one used often in Mormonism, but is it being used correctly? Here’s what the Book of Mormon says about seership:
Now Ammon said unto him, I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of ancient date, and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer. And behold, the king of the people who is in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God. And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet. And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also. And a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which have passed, and also of things which are to come. And by them shall all things be revealed, or rather shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known. Thus, God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles. Therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings. (RE Mosiah 5:13)
The way the word seer is used in Mormonism is akin to the Catholic term “His Holiness” — a title used by Catholics and LDS Church leaders alike when referring to the Pope, which for me should ONLY refer to the Lord. It’s equally offensive to me to just give someone the title of seer if they are not in fact, “seeing” or “translating” as the above scripture describes.
The prophet Ammon did not refer to himself or to anyone in blanket fashion as a seer. He points out that a seer is greater than a prophet. And that Mosiah is a seer precisely because he looks through the “interpreters” aka the Urim and Thummim AND he can be trusted by the Lord to do so AND he has been given the gift and power to translate using them. Something apparently Ammon and others, despite their tremendous faith to take on Lamanite armies, and their ability to shake the earth with their words, etc. could not do. They were apparently not seers. At least not in the same way that Mosiah was.
And yet, 15 men in the LDS Church are gratuitously given the titles of Seers. Holy seers. Holy prophets. Men of God who reveal His will. Is this all true? Or is this blasphemy?
If Russell Nelson and these 14 other men are in fact seers, why can’t they translate with the stone they allege Joseph used to translate? The stone in their possession. And why have they not been entrusted with the Urim and Thummim as many other prophets were in the scriptures? And why has the testimony of the Seers changed from Brigham to present about how the Book of Mormon was translated?
Lastly and most importantly, why call them something they clearly are not? This, in my view, delegitimizes them AND Joseph AND the Book of Mormon.